Writing inspiration I heard today, from Neil Gaiman, talking to Elizabeth Gilbert on her Magic Lessons podcast:
"Audiences, fans, only ever want one thing, which is more of what they liked last time. And it is your job as an artist not to give that to them. 'Cause what you have to give them is what they don't know they want yet."
I love this and I agree, because I like to write things that don't entirely conform to genre guidelines. But of course I instantly thought of all those really successful writers who do turn out book after book of basically what the audience liked last time. And they seem happy, and the readers seem happy. Well, Neil talked about them right away too:
"There are dolphins and there are otters. ...The dolphin will come up, it will stand on its tail, it will do a somersault...and that's great... A dolphin will put on a dolphin show. The reason why there are no otter shows... the problem with an otter is if you get an otter to do a trick, and you give it a fish, the otter goes, 'Okay, that was fun,' and next time it'll do something completely different. Because why would you do the thing you just did again? Training otters is always a complete failure because what they want to do is the next thing. They don't want to do the thing they just did, and they definitely don't want to do it over and over again."
He acknowledges he's an otter (Liz Gilbert says she is too), and so am I; and they hasten to add (as do I) that we aren't demeaning the dolphin types here. We actually really admire them, and of course publishers love them. Publishers are less sure about what to do with otter types like me. They want us to find a niche, become a brand, be a reliable source of This Type of Book--like the dolphins. But even having written fiction for, gosh, over 25 years now, I've never been able to define what my type of book is. Because I like to do new things. I'd get unhappy and boxed-in if with each book I did more or less the same thing as last time.
I mean, I kind of have a signature style. I always have a love story, so in every book, I do bring characters together, drive them apart with obstacles, and put them together again. And I always deploy humor, at least in occasional scenes if not in a full-on comedy genre kind of way. (Though sometimes I go all the way into full-on comedy.) But some of my stories are paranormal and some are real-world. Some are modern, some take place long ago. In some books the central issues are life-and-death, while in others they only crest as high as relationship implosions. And even with the love stories, I like variety, which is probably part of why I love bringing in LGBTQ characters--lots more possibilities! Yay!
Publishers can count on dolphin types for their consistent work. They can't count on me or other otters for consistency. But they can count on this: if we don't write what we want to write, we won't be happy. And if we aren't happy, our work won't turn out as good. So, it's a bit of a gamble, taking us on. We know and we apologize. But maybe we'll end up giving readers what they didn't know they wanted, and then everyone wins.